LANSING, Mich. – Julius Edwards has always loved the game of basketball. And he’s also always wanted to help put youth in the right direction. Little did he know that life would lead him down an unexpected path that combined both of these interests.
“When I first got into coaching I didn't get into coaching for the basketball part of it,” said Edwards. “Well, part basketball, but the main part of it was to help out young men and send them in the right direction. My main focus was on inner city youth.”
As Edwards wraps up his second year as head coach of the Lansing Eastern boys’ varsity basketball team he has been able to combine his love of the sport with his interest in helping out young men.
Eastern has been the perfect storm for both of Edwards’ passions.
“I always wanted to help our youth and I thought what better way to do it than as a head coach of basketball at Eastern?” said Edwards when asked about his opportunity at Eastern. “It’s way more than just basketball that you're dealing with here. You're dealing with real live situations quite a bit, we get a little bit more heavily involved in the kids’ lives maybe more so than other programs.”
Edwards talked about the challenges that the kids face, which often involve much more than school.
“We all kind of grew up in the inner city,” said Edwards about himself and his coaching staff. “We understand some of the struggles that they are faced with. ...(It’s) kids coming from single parent households and not necessarily having a male role model there to kind of show them the ropes and teach them what it is to be a man...When I first started I don't think I really saw it that way (on being a role model).”
Edwards has embraced becoming their male role model, according to assistant coach Sean Hankins.
“He does a great job in allowing them to grow as young men,” he said. “But at the same time he gives them a lot of guidance and tutelage to be able to operate not only within themselves, but the community. Our season just ended and all the seniors kind of echoed the same sentiments of ‘thank you’ for the guidance not only on the court but for all the wisdom they could use outside of basketball and that was applicable to life.”
Edwards sees mentoring as a two-way street, as he feels he is learning as much from the boys as he is trying to teach them.
“You learn a lot about yourself some things that you may not be great at and you are challenged constantly to grow,” said Edwards. “It challenges you to think and to come up with better solutions and take a look at who you are as a man or an individual.”
After two years assisting with the junior varsity and varsity teams at Eastern, Edwards would have an unexpected opportunity come his way in August 2014.
Head coach Rod Watts accepted job closer to home at Westland John Glenn, leaving the his position open at Eastern. Watts had commuted for two years from Detroit, as his wife worked in Detroit and they had also moved there.
“He was going to work in Jackson, coming here for practice, then having to leave here and go to his home in the Detroit area,” said Edwards. “That kind of took a toll on him to a certain extent. So I had to fill in and took it as an opportunity to learn.”
Edwards assumed somebody else on the coaching staff, like assistant coach Thomas Benson, would get the opening. But Benson was too busy to accept the head coach position.
Edwards was concerned about the job’s time commitment, but he wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy for the players during a period when leaders were leaving.
The changes were big: Watts was leaving, the athletic director had accepted the position as the district athletic director, another assistant coach for Sexton and the freshman coach became assistant athletic director job at Everett.
“(Edwards) just wanted to make it a good environment for us,” said junior forward Kameron Doty. “Starting with him and then working its way down from the top. Varsity players helping junior varsity and junior varsity helping freshmen. He worked well with the coaches and he just wanted it to be one tight group, like a family.”
Doty remembers how every practice ends under Edwards, invoking the “EQ” - Eastern Quakers family concept - in their final huddle countdown.
“Every breakdown at the end of practice, we say. ‘EQ on 3... family on 6’,” Doty said. “He likes us being close.”
Edwards realized he needed to instill a sense of family to continue the team’s closeness.
“There were kids who I started with here at the time that there was a lot of transition taking place,” said Edwards. “I didn't want the kids feeling like everybody is gone from the support system they had in place. I thought it was important to bridge that gap.
“I threw my name in the hat hoping I could take that position and provide them with that bridge they had with the prior coaching staff.”
Edwards won the job, and in 2014, started as head coach.
Despite the head coaching change, the team’s identity stayed the same.
“From an X’s and O’s standpoint I think Watts and I are pretty similar,” said Edwards. “Basketball-wise, we believe in a lot of discipline in the way we play. That means executing on offense and defense. That’s one of the big things I took from him.”
Edwards inherited a young team from Watts in 2014.
“It’s quite a bit of transition when you basically have a completely new roster,” said Edwards. “I don't think we had anybody, maybe two guys, that played the prior year for varsity.
“When you start talking about varsity basketball it’s a whole different animal. It’s not like junior varsity. There’s a lot more focus, there’s a lot more intensity required. There’s a lot more discipline required. If you haven't necessarily been faced with that it can be challenging for you.”
The team’s inexperience has been evident, but Edwards shifted his attention to smaller things to help it grow. The Quakers finished 1-19 this season, with their win coming on Jan. 29 against Okemos.
“It’s not from a win-and-loss standpoint, but from a competitive standpoint,” said Edwards. “When they watch on video the results they have when they do certain things I think it keeps people motivated to do a little bit more.
“The biggest thing for me when you talk about keeping them motivated is letting them know when they can see for themselves the results, it’s easier to keep them motivated.”
Edwards knows the challenges, but he has seen improvement this season from his team.
“What I do is I challenge them with being consistent,” said Edwards. “And I think over the last few weeks of this season they’ve been right there on the cusp they just need to be more confident. If you focus on the little things the bigger things will come. Don’t get caught up too much in the big picture. When you focus on the details the big things come to you.”
A favor changes everything
Edwards never planned on coaching in the first place, but everything changed thanks to his wife, Stephanie. After graduating college, Edwards was working for PNC Bank, and in his spare time attending her practices.
She co-coached a 10-11 year old girls’ AAU basketball team, the Lansing Capital City Express (CCE). Edwards, a former high school basketball player, would frequently tag along because he enjoyed going to their practices and hanging out.
Stephanie, however, had other plans, namely, putting him to work.
And the conversation was simple.
“I just asked him since he was always at practice when I was coaching and he came aboard to help out,” said Stephanie. “From there on out he just kept doing it.”
Edwards saw this as an avenue to spend time together.
“It was more just an opportunity to help her out and do something together with my wife,” said Edwards.
Edwards became an assistant on the CCE. The following season, the parents requested the couple co-coach again, so he took on the head coaching position.
Edwards, however, had no prior experience as a head coach.
“No experience, just playing basketball,” said Edwards. “So no real coaching experience before that but I decided to do it and it turned out to be good.”
Role models at home
Edwards’ desire to help others comes from his parents, who served as role models during his childhood in Detroit.
“Both of my parents served in the social services arena for over 35 years,” said Edwards. “We grew up around quite a few kids with challenges. I think at one point we lived directly in a group home, we had an apartment there. I got a chance to see that kids who are challenged, it's not necessarily their fault all the time.
“It's more the situation that they're surrounded with that puts them in the situation they’re in.”
Edwards’ upbringing around other children with challenges paved the way for him to become a future role model.
“At the end of the day, I think all kids want to be successful they all want to do something with themselves,” said Edwards. “Seeing a lot of that growing up gave me that desire to kind of work with kids because that was what I grew up around with my parents working with kids constantly. Getting an opportunity to see some of the results they had with the children was pretty impressive.”
Stay the course
Edwards has had a big impact on his players, and not just as a basketball coach.
“He knows what you need to do in life to be successful and then he teaches us that through basketball,” said junior guard Costa Gianiodis. “Working hard and striving for the best that you can do and be as a person. He brings that and shows us how to apply that on and off the court.”
Edwards finds similarities between improving the program and his players striving for a successful life outside of basketball.
“If you’ve got a road map and you know what it takes to get there don't worry about the lefts and the rights, just follow the direction,” he said. “If you follow the directions you'll get to the location that you want to go to. When you start looking up, looking left or right wondering if you're going to get there quicker that's when you have issues and that's when you end up lost.
“These kids, they're hungry they want to be successful. I think we’re getting closer and closer to that.”